Nnamdi Asomugha Easy Choice for Top Free-Agent Cornerback, But Eric Wright May Be Best Fit for Patriots Jeff Howe will break down one position of the free-agent class each day. However, free agency won’t begin until the NFL has a new collective-bargaining agreement. On Tuesday, he looked at linebackers.

Due to the prolific emergence of rookie Devin McCourty and the return of veteran Leigh Bodden, the Patriots have to be excited about their starting cornerbacks heading into 2011. Plus, Kyle Arrington emerged as a capable player on the outside, and Darius Butler showed some late-season improvements as a slot corner in sub packages.

Arrington is an exclusive rights free agent, which essentially means the Patriots will retain him if they want. At this point, nothing has happened along that front — presumably because they’re trying to work out a longer contract to reward him for rising above expectations in 2010 — but it’s nothing to be concerned about.

Aside from securing Arrington, the Patriots don’t necessarily have to make any additions to the group of cornerbacks, but if they’d like to explore some outside options, there’s a really good group of free agents on the market.

Head of the Class
1. Nnamdi Asomugha, who turns 30 in July, has been widely considered one of the two best cornerbacks in the league for at least three years, and he'll earn a monstrous payday this offseason. Asomugha's reputation is more impressive due to his statistical output. He's had more than one interception just once in his eight-year career, an eight-pick campaign in 2006 — an indication that teams simply aren't willing to throw the ball his way.

2. The Bengals probably won't let Johnathan Joseph get away because he's paired up with Leon Hall to form a top-notch cornerback tandem, which is one of the few areas Cincinnati has to build on for future seasons. Set to turn 27 in April, the 2006 first-round pick will get a big chunk of change if he's allowed to reach the open market.

3. Brent Grimes is a restricted free agent, so it would take a ton of commitment — money and draft picks — for another team to pry him away from the Falcons. Grimes, who turns 28 in July, is pretty good, but he’s probably not worth the assets it would take to acquire him.

4. Champ Bailey turns 34 in June, and he is about three years removed from being the best shutdown cornerback in the NFL. It makes sense for him to part ways with Denver — he doesn't need to endure a rebuilding process, and they don't need to spend their money on stars who are nearing the end of their careers — and he'd be a good fit on a Super Bowl contender.

Diamond in the Rough
Chris Houston was a star at Arkansas, and he was a second-round pick in 2007 as a result. Things haven’t panned out completely for Houston, who has some upper-echelon speed and good athleticism. He’s been lost in some poor defensive backfields in Atlanta and Detroit, so with some better coaching and more talent around him, it’s possible Houston could rediscover that confidence.

Fit for New England
Eric Wright was very unspectacular with the Browns in 2010, but the Patriots made it work with Leigh Bodden after he spent some time in that system. Wright began his college career at USC before transferring to UNLV, and he was a second-round pick in 2007, so scouts at all levels have seen his potential. Since Wright will turn 26 in July, he’s young enough to revive his career, and he’d have time to develop in New England’s system.

Don’t Forget
1. Antonio Cromartie was good during his first season with the Jets, but he still managed to fall shy of expectations. He quickly loses confidence when quarterbacks pick on him, which is only natural when he lines up opposite of Darrelle Revis. Expect the Jets to make an ill-fated run at Asomugha before retaining Cromartie.

2. Ike Taylor was decent for the Steelers and could receive more money than he's probably worth from a team that is looking to make a mid-budget splash. Pittsburgh should try to keep him because his tackling prowess makes him a good fit for that system, but the Steelers probably won't get into a bidding war for his services.

3. Ronde Barber turns 36 in April, but he played well for Tampa Bay in 2010. Since he was one of the very, very few veterans retained by the Bucs in 2009, it’s apparent that they’re comfortable with him. It makes sense for him to return to Tampa.

4. Have you noticed that Fabian Washington is always a free agent in every single edition of Madden? Well, he’s a free agent in real life now.